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Gilmore candidacy proves Va. GOP's lethargy

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By Rick Howell

In what shapes up as an extremely difficult year for national Republicans, the Virginia Republican Party is facing a tough task of its own.

The selection of former governor Jim Gilmore as the party’s U.S. Senate candidate can only be seen in psychological terms: it’s either a cry for help or an admission of failure.

Gilmore was a one-note governor who got into office on an anti-tax scheme that was never going to work and never did work. The mission was to wage war on taxes, regardless of the importance of the revenue.

His ideological zeal against taxation left the state’s budget in shambles. It took his successor, Mark Warner, and some courageous Republicans in the state senate to repair the problem with a tax increase.

Gilmore was nothing more than an item of curiosity last year when he briefly sought his party’s nomination for president. He attracted little support and got out early. It was said that the whole thing was meant to send a message to Virginia Republicans that he wanted to return from exile.

Well, he’s back. But not so easily. At the state party convention, Gilmore just barely edged out Delegate Bob Marshall for the nomination. Marshall is notorious for his intense interest in sex-related matters, and had said abortion would be his top issue if he were the nominee.

But at the convention - if I read the reports of it correctly - many moderate Republicans were actually willing to support Marshall because they thought choosing Gilmore would be such an obvious mistake. That’s how Marshall was able to make it so close.

But the nominee is Gilmore, who now faces a seemingly impossible task of defeating the popular, hard-working Mark Warner.

Warner begins the race with a double digit lead in the polls, a unified state Democratic Party behind him, and a role as a key player who will not only win for himself but could help deliver Virginia to Barack Obama.

Gilmore apparently thinks he can make a case against Warner based on the tax increase. But Warner has become a genius at playing up the benefits of bipartisanship. His first campaign ad featured endorsements from two of the Republicans who helped him pass the budget bill.

Partisan rancor is blamed, rightly or wrongly, for many of our troubles. And the fact is Warner did persuade Senate Republicans to bolt from the anti-tax religion of their own party and hammer out that budget deal. It was a very impressive piece of political work, and he can be expected to milk it for all it’s worth in this campaign.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s the only asset he brings to the race. He’s extremely intelligent, and has already offered an interesting mix of proposals for short term and long term energy security. As the campaign develops, he’ll outline other such proposals consistent with his reputation as an original thinker.

Warner is easily the most popular politician in the state right now, and that gives Democrats an almost certain knowledge that we will soon claim both U.S. Senate seats.

The Virginia Republican Party, meanwhile, continues to face a slow meltdown that has seen it lose control of the state senate, the Webb/Allen race in 2006, and the last two campaigns for governor. When your choices for Senate candidate this year are between Jim Gilmore and Bob Marshall, well, it’s pretty obvious your decline is continuing.

Rick Howell, a Bedford native, is a member of the Roanoke City Democratic Committee, and can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.